Let's give the Eurosceptics a referendum

Lib Dem foreign affairs spokesman Michael Moore argues it is time to take the fight to the Euroscept

Europe has been suffering from a prolonged period stagnation, politely referred to as a period of ‘reflection’, following the rejection of the Constitutional Treaty by the French and Dutch electorate in 2005.

With this week’s inter-governmental conference (IGC) in Lisbon, that period will finally be brought to a close. And not before time.

The whole debacle of the failed Constitutional Treaty and the debate on its successor has threatened to be a victory for British Eurosceptics and Europhobes. And it is now time for those who support Europe, and for all those who recognise Britain’s declining ability to influence the world alone, to make the case for Europe and to sell the ideas behind the Reform Treaty.

The new treaty will introduce reform which is long overdue and changes which are plain common sense.

Indeed, if we are to have an effective and functioning Europe, the first priority must be to get on with reform of institutions which were designed for a Union of six nations.

How can it be argued that the six-monthly rotating presidency is an adequate system of leadership, when no consistency of purpose can be maintained?

Establishing a permanent presidency with a maximum tenure of five years will ensure stability and continuity at the top of Europe. Surely this is a much better situation than Britain clinging to the chance to hold the Presidency every 13.5 years for a period of six months. Even more so, when we consider that someone with the clout and credibility to drive forward Europe’s shared agenda can be appointed, rather than imposing the burden of a six monthly presidency for a Union of 490 million people on countries whose populations are around the half-million mark.

Those who aspire to an England that never was and a Britain that never can be, argue that we must retreat from the Europe we are part of if we are to have any influence in the world. They would have us believe that this treaty spells the end for Britain’s independent foreign policy. This is of course palpable nonsense bordering on a lie. Nothing in the proposed treaty undermines the UK’s ability to promote and pursue its own interests. Britain retains its sovereign right to set its foreign policy agenda and its seat on the UN Security Council is not threatened in any way.

But reform of the Union’s foreign policy structures is much needed if we are to increase British and European influence on the world. By streamlining the institutions (e.g. by having one foreign policy spokesman rather than two) and making them more effective, the EU will be better able to pursue its shared agenda: whether that be sanctions on Burma, Zimbabwe and Sudan or securing peace and stability in Kosovo and the Balkans. All issues on which there is a British consensus for the need for action, and which Britain would struggle to influence on its own.

And in an era of global challenges like international terrorism, climate change and migration, only supranational solutions will suffice.

Opponents of Europe will often highlight the lack of accountability, transparency and democracy of the European institutions, and sometimes with merit. But this treaty addresses these problems and enhances the role of national parliaments, extends powers to the European Parliament, and makes voting in the Council of Ministers more democratic. To rally against this treaty on the grounds that Europe is distant and unaccountable is therefore, at best, contradictory, at worst, downright misleading.

On any logical assessment, it could not be clearer that Britain’s interests lie firmly within Europe and that making these reforms is so much to our advantage.

But, we know that, so far, the debate on the Reform Treaty has been dominated by Eurosceptics (or even Europhobes) with the support of their media allies and that they have demanded a referendum come what may.

They argue that ‘90%’ or ‘95%’ of the treaty is the same as the constitution. Notwithstanding the dubious statistical analysis they proffer, the argument in itself is disingenuous. The key point is that the reform that we need is included in the new treaty and the constitutional trappings we don’t have been scrapped.

Not to mention the achievement of the Government’s ‘red lines’ which have ensured that the Charter of Fundamental Rights will not create new rights in the UK and secured Britain’s right to opt in to Justice and Home Affairs measures.

Indeed, it is time to tackle this issue head on. We need to make clear that this treaty is in our national interest and in the interests of Europe. We should sign it and ratify it so that we can get on with the issues that matter.

Of course, it would be foolish not to recognise the desire among many British people to have a real say on British membership of the European Union. A referendum on the Reform Treaty will not give them that say, but will focus on complex legal and institutional issues in a document filled with legalese and Euro-jargon.

So, if the Eurosceptics want a referendum let us give them one. Let us expose their real agenda. Let’s give the public a referendum on the real issue: are we in Europe or are we out?